Flowers are placed on a plane engine at the crash site of a Malaysia Airlines jet near the village of Hrabove, in eastern Ukraine, on Saturday. (Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press)
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WASHINGTON — U.S. officials said on July 18 that they were unsure if the BUK surface-to-air missile system suspected of shooting down a Malaysian Air flight on July 17 was transported over the border from Russia, or a Ukrainian system captured by pro-Russian separatists.
Speaking to the United Nations Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said the United States is “not aware of any Ukrainian [surface-to-air-missile] systems in the area of the shootdown.”
Later in the day, however, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said he had “no information about specific anti-aircraft systems crossing the border” from Russia into Ukraine.
A spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry told the Russian ITAR-TASS news agency on July 18, however, that “neither the BUK anti-aircraft missile systems nor other weaponry in service with the Russian Armed Forces had crossed the border into Ukraine.”
While there is dispute over where the system comes from, both American officials on July 18 did say that all available U.S. intelligence points to a Russian-made SA-11 missile fired from a mobile BUK system as the culprit in the downing of the civilian aircraft that claimed 295 lives.
Claims that pro-Russian separatists shot the plane down in some respects downplay the level of technological sophistication needed to operate such a complex piece of equipment, several analysts warned, stressing that the BUK system cannot simply be operated by people who haven’t undergone extensive training on it.
In order to make a shot like the one that appears to have hit the airliner, a crew of four operators “would normally train for weeks or months” on the system said retired Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan, director of the Defense and Intelligence Project at Harvard University.
Ryan, who served as senior regional director for Slavic States in the Office of Secretary of Defense and defense attaché to Russia from 2001 to 2003, said the system would have to be “operated by somebody who is trained on it, or a professional air defense artillery operator.”
The BUK system has three components: the launcher, which features a short-range acquisition radar that “talks” to the missile as it travels to its target; a separate, longer-range surveillance radar able to inform the crew that an aircraft is approaching while giving its altitude and trajectory; and a command-and-control vehicle.
The longer-range radar and command-and-control vehicle allow the crew to “squawk” at an approaching target, thereby confirming what kind of aircraft it is, how large it is and how fast it is traveling.
For this reason, some analysts said the BUK system likely involved in the incident was using only the short-range radar on the missile launcher, which can see only about 19 miles and cannot communicate with the approaching aircraft.
“I think these guys did not have a long-range surveillance radar or a command-and-control vehicle to track it, so they saw it at the last minute,” Ryan said.
The BUK system “fits the profile of the engagement itself,” said retired Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, former director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, who spoke on a conference call with reporters on the afternoon of July 18.
“In order to operate the system you need extensive training,” he said. “This is not something that is typically manned by a paramilitary or an extremist group.” The four crewmen need to work in a synchronized fashion in order to pick up and track a target and fire a missile. For that reason, he said “the people who did this were extensively trained by either the Ukrainian Army or the Russian Army.”
Gen. Philip Breedlove, head of the U.S. European Command, testified to Congress in June that Russia had provided anti-aircraft weapons and training to separatist groups fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Russian Federation and Ukrainian missile crews are highly competent, Ryan said, adding, “I think even if the separatists have had that training in their past, they may have had [a Russian] adviser or two working alongside them during this engagement.”
In Washington, Republican lawmakers reacted to the shootdown by calling for the U.S. to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable, while also shipping arms to Ukraine’s military and providing other tactical support.
“They could utilize American support and assistance as they try to impact and lessen what really is an international crisis of a war zone opening up in Europe,” said House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio.
“I think in addition to the issue of looking to arms for Ukraine … the U.S. has high fidelity as to what is occurring in this area. This information should be shared with Ukraine so they can defend themselves,” Turner told Bloomberg television.
“And, also, Vladimir Putin needs to be held accountable. This plane came down as a result of Vladimir Putin deciding that he was going to open a war zone in Europe. He needs to pay a price for that and certainly all of our allies need to come together jointly.”
But one adviser to senior U.S. national security officials warns Washington and its allies against coming together too forcefully.
“The real question is how to avoid getting involved in angry political exchanges,” says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “At the same time, the West cannot do anything that would preclude a more meaningful dialogue between the U.S. and Russia.
“Maybe most important, don’t demonize Russia. And don’t react emotionally,” Cordesman said. “That looks like an over-reaction that is likely to bring a similar over-reaction by Putin. You don’t gain at this point by pushing Putin to his limits. You accomplish change by quietly pushing him and quietly talking to him.”
Cordesman doubts the Malaysian airliner take down will cause European nations to boost defense spending to guard against Russian aggression.
“The most recent [NATO] secretary general report points out that the U.S. has increased its NATO funding by 5 percent — despite cuts here,” Cordesman said, adding with a chuckle: “So I’ll believe a European defense buildup when I see it.”
What is most likely to happen, he said, is the U.S. will “speak softly and implement a big sanction.” Cordesman added that President Barack Obama likely will work closely with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has a relationship with Putin.?
When it comes to potential countermeasures for commercial airplanes that may fly over conflict zones, the solutions are expensive and may not be popular among airlines and their passengers who would see their ticket prices go up, several analysts said.
“It’s possible this will give a little bit of a push to those who are trying to equip commercial aircraft with defenses against MANPADS [shoulder-fired rockets],” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute and a consultant to defense firms.
But he warned that “the kind of system you would need to counter this type of surface-to-air missile would involve things like chaff and electronic countermeasures. If you have to provide a wide-body jet with the kind of protections an F-35 carries, you’re starting to talk about a big impact on ticket price.”
Similarly, Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at the Teal Group, said he wouldn’t be surprised to see some calls to revive the Directional Infrared Counter Measures (DIRCM) program.
“What made DIRCM a non-starter was that it looked like the mother of all unfunded mandates, and because there was a legitimate debate about militarizing a commercial platform,” Aboulafia said. “Within that militarization you’ve got the ethical angle, you’ve got the legal angle and you’ve got the [exportability] angle. There are many different angles. All of whom complicate things.
“Conceivably, you could see a return to calls for DIRCM, but they probably won’t get very far,” since the system is designed for shoulder-fired rockets, not the sophisticated surface-to-air missile suspected in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
John T. Bennett and Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this report.